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Solly’s Girl: a memoir by Ros Collins: book review

In the opening lines of Solly’s Girl: a memoir, the author is wearing a Pierre Balmain copy wedding dress as she rides pillion on a Lambretta named La Cigale (the cicada) behind her “skinny Australian” through the icy streets of London. Straight away, we know this is no ordinary girl. Her name is Ros Collins and she is someone destined for an extraordinary life of bucking trends and taking adventurous paths.

I first heard from Ros, in response to a review I wrote of a collection of short stories by her late husband Alan Collins. I wrote at the time that I could easily have imagined myself sharing a glass of wine and a few tall stories with Alan, a writer described by Arnold Zable as a classic Australian yarn spinner. My disappointment at never having met Alan was assuaged by my first meeting with Ros when, joined by Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers who brought along a very fine bottle of bubbly, we clinked our glasses in a joyous toast to the forthcoming release of Solly’s Girl.

The title is suggestive of Alan’s memoir Alva’s Boy (review at ANZ Litlovers) and, despite the gulf between the respective childhoods of the authors, the books make fine companions.

In the closing pages of her memoir, Ros ponders the readers for whom she wrote:

At the beginning I thought I was writing for my children and grandchildren. Then it seemed I might be completing what Alan started in Alva’s Boy – albeit not in the same style. It’s hard to tell. (288-289)

As a reader who was not on the author’s radar when she first put pen to paper, I can tell you that this is a memoir for us all. Jewish-Australians, ten pound poms, home-grown Aussies, wives, husbands, lovers. Despite being a personal account of a life, Solly’s Girl is universal in its themes of love and loss, duty and freedom, joy and despair. It unfolds like a conversation. “Let me entertain you”, opens the chat and, in less than 300 pages, we are indeed entertained.

There is some delightful humour on show early in the piece. When her new husband Alan told her how much she would love living in Victoria, mentioning picnics and visits to the Dandenongs, the author, being unaware of the Dandenong mountains, instead imagines meeting “some Mr and Mrs Dandenong”.  And the suburb of Caulfield sounded – to an English girl of a certain class – like the name of a property “rather like Tara in Gone with the Wind” (13).

The Lambretta, La Cigale, is like a character itself in the opening chapters, having been shipped out to Australia by the newlyweds. She was a beacon to the local cops who were keen to check her out and when, as new parents, Ros and Alan reluctantly sold her, they kept her brass cicada mascot. A Lambretta just like La Cigale will form part of the décor for the Melbourne launch of Solly’s Girl. How fitting.

Parts of Solly’s Girl read like a missive of thanks from a daughter to her parents, an atonement perhaps for a perceived lack of communication years ago. The deep love that cemented her parents’ life together is enchanting. When Sadie died aged ninety-seven, Ros’s father Solly visited Australia twice more from London, each time bringing a silver framed picture of his beloved wife.

He slept with it under his pillow, together with the little red woollen mittens she wore to keep her hands warm. (62)

But back in Ros’s youth when a daring sense of adventure battled with her love and respect for her parents, adventure won the day. Despite the fact that “nice Jewish girls didn’t leave home unmarried” back in the fifties (89), Ros moved out to bunk with a school friend in a boarding house in Hampstead. What an interesting bunch they met there, living in the home of a Holocaust refugee composer and his family. Amongst the boarders: the photographer of Edmund Hilary’s Everest expedition; the first black actor to appear regularly on British television and his German girlfriend; and a man who allegedly doped horses.  Ros writes that the house “had a kind of raffish aura about it” and the exposure to the “intellectual European refugees and émigrés, artists and actors” (92) must have been terribly exhilarating.

The author also gives an insightful study of the lives that went before her parents – the grandparents and aunts and uncles who forged ahead, in some way shaping the lives that were to follow. Ros writes of her need to acknowledge a debt to grandparents she hardly knew:

Their worldly achievements were quite minimal, their material wealth very slight. … The fortunate made it to America, the goldene medine; the brave and hopeful young idealists went to Palestine; my ancestors chose England. One hundred years later, here in Australia, I am grateful. (53-54)

She writes freely about the challenges of married life and the exhausting and exacting tasks of a mother and wife in that era:

I hung on hopefully to a deepening sense of love for a man I hardly understood, whilst in his mind Alan created a fantasy goddess out of a confused and rather lonely young woman.  (32)

It is clear that the her suburban days spent in Box Hill mothering three small children, caring for a foster child and playing “straight guy” to her charmingly “offbeat” husband (120-121) didn’t amount to her ideal life, but she made the best of it and emerged, as the children went off to school, just as you would expect of a freedom-loving adventurous individual; by snagging a job, obtaining teaching qualifications, joining protest marches and offering her services to the technical teachers’ union. When the Collins family eventually returned to Ros’s beloved Elwood, there was no backward glance.

Amongst her many professional achievements, Ros became director of the Makor Jewish Community Library, received an award for outstanding services from the Zionist Council of Victoria and was awarded the Woman Achiever of the Year in 1999 by the National Council of Jewish Women. Between the lines, it is clear that Ros has a deep connectedness to her Jewish roots, a respect she has passed on to her children, but she is obviously not one to drown in dogma and tradition:

I am writing these sentences on Yom Kippur, a day on which I should be fasting and praying for forgiveness. But I don’t fast, and repentance is something I deal with as soon as I realise I have made a mistake. (175)

 Wise words.

There’s a description in the book of a wonderfully Aussie celebration of Jewish New Year. After a failed fishing expedition on the Alligator River in the Northern Territory, barra is purchased from the local fish shop and an apple pie concocted in a hot caravan oven.  Rosh Hashanah was celebrated “sitting around a deserted swimming pool in a caravan park”. The accompanying photograph shows three generations sitting at an outdoor plastic table, their beaming faces testament to the occasion which would become a precious memory.  The candles were “like little mirrors of the stars in a vast mysterious sky” and there were “cans of beer and bottles of lemonade to wash down the pie” (236-37). What a celebration!

Solly’s Girl is a beautifully produced memoir with quality photo inclusions and, above all, it is superbly written.

You can find details of the launch and where to purchase Solly’s Girl here.

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Wittgenstein Jnr: a novel by Lars Iyer. Book Review

It has been a while between posts due to current study commitments but I am compelled to comment on Wittgenstein Jr, a novel by Lars Iyer. My literary taste-buds fairly tingled upon reading Lisa Hill’s review at ANZ Litlovers in which she alerts us to Iyer’s laugh-out-loud humour and clever satire. Unlike Lisa, I am unfamiliar with the real Wittgenstein and his work but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this romp of a read.

Wittgenstein Jr is the nickname given to a philosophy lecturer by his students. Our narrator, Peters, is of the group, yet slightly distant, partly because of his northern non-elitist background and partly – I suspect – because of the depth of his own philosophical bent. In fact, when I wasn’t laughing, I worried between lines about the fate of both Wittgenstein Jr and Peters (the other characters seem far more urbane and centred).

In addition to the humour and delightful insights into the world of the undergraduate and the university dons, Wittgenstein Jr has moments of great poignancy and, in places, I found the underlying sentiments to be deeply, darkly sad.

Peters tells us that Wittgenstein says he has experienced every kind of mental illness:-

He’s heard hostile voices. He’s felt that his mind is being read. He’s felt persecuted. Tormented, by alien forces. He’s experienced great highs, manias. He’s felt grandiosity. He’s felt chosen. He’s felt that only he could save the world.

And he’s experienced terrible despairs, he says. Abysmal depression. He’s had to keep away from sharp knives. From exposed pipework. From bottles of bleach. From high places… (p146)

But I’ll leave this mini-review of what is a fabulous novel with a lighter quote.

Notes passed in class. Mulberry to Doyle: You’re a whiny little bitch. Doyle to Mulberry: You have a micro-penis. Mulberry to Doyle: You have a nano-penis. Doyle to Mulberry: You have a quantum penis. It’s both there and not there. (p21)

wittgenstein-jr

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THE END OF THE WORLD by Maria Takolander: Review

Good things come, as the saying goes, in small packages.

Takolander-frontcover-214x300

The End of the World is a precise and economical collection of poems by Maria Takolander presented in a neat little 78 page paperback. It’s Takolander’s third poetry collection, following on from Narcissism (2005) and Ghostly Subjects (2009).

Takolander’s poems are excruciatingly daring, despite some every-day domestic subjects.

The first two poems ‘Unborn’ and ‘Post-partum’ are linked in exactly the sense that the titles suggest.  Poetry can often seem inaccessible but I was instantly seduced by the recognizable in the surreal animal-ness of these poems about motherhood.

The very first stanza (Morning Sickness) of the first poem (Unborn) is a tour de force. A newly pregnant woman dreams of a sow giving birth to a litter. ‘…their lids were serene,/as if eyes did not exist, and their ears were closed/to the sound of their own not screaming…’ The two other stanzas ‘Ultrasound’ and ‘Foetal Movement’ continue the pregnancy journey.  What modern-day mother (or father) wouldn’t relate to seeing the first grainy pictures of their baby: ‘As I watch you shadow box with sourness, radiance and din,/the sources of which you must fear like a medieval Christian,/.’ It’s all here in these two poems: the joy, the blood, the recognition, the pain and violence. Every word perfectly precise, perfectly descriptive, perfect.

The motherhood theme continues in this collection (which Takolander has dedicated to her son) and, in ‘Night Feed’, the baby is a ‘time traveller at my breast’.  Once again, the poet is tapping in to the universal experience through the deeply personal for haven’t we all wondered where babies have been, what knowledge they are coveting, what their slot is in time and their place in relation to ourselves?

As two little girls in their pyjamas navigate the aftermath of violence in ‘Domestic’, we are confronted with the interior of a broken TV which looks ‘bereft’, and the mess of a broken pot plant with its soil and roots and shards of terracotta littering the room ‘as if Triffids had escaped.’

The collection unfolds naturally, from the deeply personal (a woman’s body, a mother and a baby, a family broken) outward to the wider world of alien surrounds and different countries, wars and dead relatives, to Stalin and convicts.

The hotel room of the first poem in Section two with its beige bed cover that ‘has been ironed of dreams’ is a place ‘furnished by sanity’. Once again, so accessible, so recognizable is this room, even when painted in the language of the poet.

‘Missing in Action’ is about men lost in wars, a grandmother ‘dead soon after she got an electric stove’, others who succumbed to alcohol and, poignantly:

Three other uncles: heart attacks – possibly euphemistic.
                (Pictures of those men, modest and blank faced,
                Suggest something already buried.)

Part three begins with ‘Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Anthropologist’ and as I read the following…

                4 rapists, sparkly-eyed.
                6 prostitutes, furnished thickly with hair.
                3 thin-lipped murderers.

…I realised that I was, rather macabrely, almost singing it a-la ‘and a partridge in a pear tree’.

‘Charcot’s Patients’ brings together the historic and the contemporary with a fine dose of black humour, ending with:

Years later – with Charcot posthumously celebrated
                as the founder of Charcot’s disease –
                the Salpetriere hospital in Paris receives
the body of Princess Diana, freshly deranged and photographed.  

The final poems use a kind of reverse anthropomorphism to highlight the foibles of the human animal.  Some bizarre imagery emerges from donkeys sitting at a plastic table watching the sunset, a goat dropping a fishing line from the jetty and then throwing a tantrum, and a spectator-pig watching a collection of animals playing sport.

After reviewing Takolander’s first collection of short stories and now this collection of poems, I had formed an imaginary view of her (in that way we tend to do when we’ve spoken to someone via phone numerous times over a period).  And, as is often the way, my picture was just about as far from the reality as it was possible to get.  I expected something haunted and hardened behind dark eyes.  Rather (as Google reveals) she looks soft and innocent, the girl-next-door in a Doris Day mode and most unlike a writer of such deep bleakness and violence.  That’s not to suggest that there’s not some light and laughter here between the lines but it is that kind of underbelly power that forms the lasting impression for me.

Thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers (cross-posted) for the opportunity to review this beautiful collection of poems, the publication of which was assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council. (A couple of poet friends of mine sense some irony in the fact that many of these poems have previously appeared in esteemed publications while exceptional works of unknown poets languish – without funding – in bottom drawers. A subject worth debating perhaps.)

BOOK DETAIL:
Takolander, Maria. The End of the World. Giramondo Publishing Company, Artarmon, NSW, 2014.
ISBN 978-1-922146-51-9

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THE GLASS KINGDOM by Chris Flynn: Book Review

In closing my review of Chris Flynn’s novel A Tiger in Eden, I referred to the author’s bio which tells us that he was once a sumo-wrestling referee in a travelling fair and I noted there was a novel in that, for sure.

While The Glass Kingdom is not about a sumo-wrestling referee, it does centre on a travelling carnival.

glass kingdom

Part One is narrated by Corporal Benjamin Wallace, a man I warmed to immediately (although if Ben was real, he wouldn’t take kindly to my choice of words there). I felt a great empathy for this big bear of a disfigured soldier, despite the fact that he’s a hell of a bad-assed drug dealer. Flynn is good at getting the reader to care about what should be an unsympathetic character.  He certainly did that in A Tiger in Eden and he’s done it again here in The Glass Kingdom. However, my sympathy and empathy didn’t quite extend to Mikey Dempster (more about him later).

Benjamin’s injuries (sickening burns and psychological trauma) come courtesy of his tour in Uruzgan but there are other injuries dating back to his childhood when this son of a “tattooed lady who swallowed swords and danced wearing naught but her ink” (104) and a repugnant and controlling father, tried to run away from the travelling show.

Benjamin/Ben/Benji/the soljer has a way of looking at the world through blood-tinted glasses.  He’s a sharp-shooting, hard-living, tough-talking guy who tells it like it is, sometimes with a wry smile:

Just as well nine mils weren’t available to young blokes in Australia.  There’d be no men aged fourteen to thirty left standing.  The dickheads would all shoot each other. (11)

The travelling carnival can be a lively affair but there are nights when drought and poverty and unemployment can be a drag on the spirits.  Flynn has the down-and-out country family down pat:

The kids would stare at the shiny rides with their hollowed-out eyes and occasionally risk a pleading stare at their fathers.  The men would gaze into the middle distance, giving a shake of the head. (15)

Inside a country pub, Ben elbows his way through “a crowd of flannel shirts” (25) where the dance floor is “obscured by a forest of thin denim legs” (27) and you can soon tell that, with his sidekick Mikey on the loose, the proverbial is going to hit the fan.  When it does, the fight scene comes to life frighteningly on the page.

It’s a very Australian novel in a kind of outback, commodore-loving, laconic way where drivers chuck “a skidding uey” (52) and fights break out in pubs at the drop of a hat.  “A Mustang’s all well and good,” muses Ben about his girlfriend’s dream car “until the fucken exhaust falls off in the middle of the Hume” (48).

In this first part, the character of Mikey is an absolute gem and a perfect foil for the taciturn Ben. Mikey, with his outrageously funny hip-hop rap is basically a “grommet from Freo” (13) [for those unfamiliar with Aussie slang; that’s a young surfer from Fremantle in Western Australia] who’s hoisting up his pants and puffing out his chest and trying to make some sort of mark on the world without expending too much energy.

Part Two ‘Voltan, Master of Electricity’, is narrated by an ageing electrician and life-long member of the travelling Fair whose memories will fade as his dementia increases and this section serves as a clever device to highlight some of the difficulties Ben endured as a youngster.  Voltan’s reminiscences help to solidify our sympathy for Ben:

He left the Kingdom for good, one fateful autumn day, and he died, that boy, in some foreign desert. I mourn his passing when I think of him.  Someone else came back, you see – a man none of us knew, a man utterly changed, a young prince returned from the great war of our time to reclaim his throne. (116)

Voltan has a story of his own and when I read “That tale is for another day…” (105), it occurred to me that it might not be the last we hear of this quirky character.  I am confident there would be a worthy story in the life of this son of a miner who was followed to Australia across the ocean by “something of the dread atmosphere in the mining village” (105).

Part Three is narrated by Mikey (AKA Mekong Delta) and it is here where my interest in the story waned. I enjoyed Mikey when I saw him through Ben’s eyes “(there was a tiny bit of handsome hidden underneath that fake-gangster exterior)” (20) but couldn’t warm to him on his own. The argot of this wannabe US gangster-rap hip-hop Aussie lout, while perfectly realised, becomes too much of a strain to read, once his character becomes the focus.  In addition, I couldn’t find the sympathy I’d mustered for Ben and I just yearned for the soldier to come back and take the starring role again.

When Ben did eventually return in ‘O Dark Hundred’, it didn’t satisfy me.  He seemed to have lost his original voice and slightly morphed into something half Ben/half Mikey with a bit of silliness thrown into the mix.

In a desperate bid to get some perspective on my ambivalence toward the latter part of the book, I searched for any similar questions raised by other reviewers.  Of the few reviews I found, no-one’s climbing in my boat. Tony Birch reviewed The Glass Kingdom for the Australian Book Review and Alan Vaarwerk (who found Mikey to be a “real stand-out”) reviewed for ReadingsJames Tierney (Sydney Morning Herald) goes so far as to dub part three, in Mikey’s voice, as “quite simply a tour-de-force”.  So, clearly, I am alone on choppy seas when it comes to my dislike of the manic Mikey and my resentment that he played such a big part.

I am pleased to say that my non-relationship with Mikey was not enough to negate the fascinating, rampaging romp that is the first part of the novel and, coming on the back of A Tiger in Eden, I feel The Glass Kingdom has cemented Flynn as a writer of considerable muscle. Can’t wait for the next one.

My thanks, once again, to ANZ Litlovers where this review is cross-posted.

BOOK DETAIL:
Flynn, Chris. The Glass Kingdom, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2014.
ISBN: 9 781922 147882

 

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Lost & Found by Brooke Davis: Book Review

I love original Australian literary voices and I’ve found a new one I fancy … Brooke Davis., a prize-winning writer of fiction with a PhD from Curtin University in WA. Lost and Found is, in her words, her ‘first proper novel’ and what a corker it is. My little margin notes include lots of ohs and wows, *s and !s, omgs and clevers.

Incidentally, Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love, which I reviewed here, also emerged from the same program at Curtin University as Lost and Found.

lost-found

Lost and Found is about life and love and loss. It’s about character, in all meanings of the word (Collins English Dictionary: a combination of qualities, one such quality, reputation, representation of a person, an outstanding person and [even] a symbol used in writing [refer to Karl the Touch Typist]).

After I read the story, I realised what a great job Christabella Designs have done with the cover design. Perfection.

Let me introduce you to Davis’s characters:-

Millie Bird

Millie is a little abandoned girl with spunk and attitude and a way with words.  When Millie saw an old man killed (hit by a car) “He looked back at her like he was only a drawing.  She ran her fingers over his wrinkles and wondered what he’d used each one for.”(5)

Millie is trying to find a place for herself in the world, endeavouring to understand why adults act the way they do.  She ruminates on existing words and why you can’t use them all.  Without a guiding book, “you were just supposed to know” (104-105) which words were not okay.

Examples of things you weren’t allowed to say, to anyone, at any time:
How fat are you?
Do you have a vagina or a penis?
What kind of funeral do you want when you die? (105)

Karl the Touch Typist

Karl grieves for his wife. “It felt strange to breathe when she couldn’t.” (20) He touch-types on all manner of apparatus, from thin air to small children’s heads. Wondering about himself, about his life, about his place in the world, Karl thinks that “In the world of punctuation, he might have been a dash – floating, in between, not necessarily required.” (87) What a delightfully clever gem of a sentence that is.

Agatha Pantha

Agatha has been alone for years, trapped in her house with television static, yelling to everyone and no-one as she moves between her Chairs: of Disbelief, of Degustation, of Discernment, of Resentment, of Disagreement, of Disengagement. Agatha’s dissertation on funerals and their aftermath of people “hulking casseroles full of dead animals, and pity” and materialising in her house, “cocking their head to one side and clawing at her” (53-54) is both hilarious and sad.

These three beautifully sketched characters – Millie, Karl and Agatha – collide; their personalities and peccadillos bouncing around off one another, forming a vortex of comedic possibilities.

Cameo Appearances

The dieting Helen:
The Atkins one? Is it Atkins? Or CSIRO? You get to smell all the food you want.” (41).
While purchasing cake: “They’re not for me, Helen says. I’m on a diet.  The North Beach one? Kate Moss uses it.  You can hold all the food you like.” (44)

Manny: Yes, he might be plastic but he has a definite presence (with or without all his limbs).

Karl’s wife Evie left him a pouch of letters – F I G T R O O – a mystery for him to solve, a life puzzle perhaps? Evie was a calm and stable person:

Every word felt measured out, like she’d poured her words into measuring cups and flattened out the tops of them before she upended them into the world. (167)

Stella is a platinum-hearted bus driver who has a bath in which, according to Mille, one can make “entire cities out of bubbles”. (136)

Lost and Found is a showcase for Davis’s superb sense of humour, her perfect grasp of craft, and an originality that makes me positively green.

The structure is interesting.  In part one, the ‘Millie’ chapters are divided into the days of waiting, interspersed with facts that she knows.  Agatha’s time is broken into days and, within those days, into sections of time. And Karl is sectioned by things that he knows: things he knows about love, for example, and things he knows about sadness.

Davis knows how to worry away at your heart-strings, like when Millie has an overwhelming urge to snuggle up to a woman who “smells like a mum” (183)

But you should be able to hug all the mums who aren’t yours, because some people don’t have mums and what are they supposed to do with all the hugs they have? (183)

It’s a page-turner too.  Just like Millie, we feel compelled to find her mother.  But it also becomes increasingly important to find out the meaning of the jumble of letters Karl’s wife left for him.

There was a point (about half way through part three) where I wondered if the story had become a bit too farcical. Karl and Agatha start yelling on the train, Derek the conductor is stamping his foot and throwing paper, and Manny is flung over Karl’s shoulder.  It was just a little too slapstick for a few pages and it’s just not a style I’m comfortable with. The writing here seemed very visual, clashing a little with the rest of the novel.  I also thought it took a detour into some sort of ‘Kids Own Adventure Tale’ with Millie and her friend Jeremy each taking on Superhero status. Minor quibble and I’d be interested to know if anyone else agrees.

I love how Agatha’s rigid time frames (e.g. “6.25: Pours the remainder of her Bonox down the sink. 6.26: Removes all her clothes” (68)), goes through various degrees of rigidity before segueing to “Morning(ish) Agatha Standard Time” (252).

And you’ve just got to check out Millie’s idea of constructing a poem.  Brilliant. I can’t stop doing it myself now … in the supermarket, on the train. Delicious fun.

Reviewing for The West Australian, Ian Nichols writes: “The painstaking care that went into the novel is evident in the poetic, economical prose.”

Rosemarie Milsom (for Newcastle Herald) wasn’t always fond of Davis’s supporting cast of “quirky, laconic characters” and found Manny to be a “jarring” inclusion (conversely, I loved them, especially Manny).

The novel generated a big buzz at the London Book Fair and has been sold around the world, being translated into 20 languages.

BOOK DETAIL:
Davis, Brooke Lost & Found, Hachette Australia, Sydney, 2014.
ISBN: 978 0 7336 3275 4
Thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZLitlovers (where my review is cross-posted) for the opportunity to review this gem of a book.

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The New Media Landscape

I have done very little posting of late. And that’s not changing right this minute.

This not-really-a-post is more of a sign-post for anyone who is interested in the changing face of journalism to check out this post at ANZ LitLovers.

Online journalism and the demise or otherwise of print media is an interesting and challenging topic and something worth thinking about and commenting upon.

 

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Griffith Review 38, Annual Fiction Edition, the Novella Project: Book Review

My thanks again to Lisa Hill for providing me with some fabulous fodder for these reviews for  ANZ LitLovers.

Griffith Review’s Annual Fiction Edition The Novella Project is a treasure box filled with six novellas – a couple of them just a smidge over what might be called substantial short stories – and a small collection of pictures entitled ‘Here comes the sun: a loose association of artists (Tai Snaith’s ‘Assorted Organic Thugs 2012’ a delightful standout for me).

Cover Image is 'The Cruel Sea' by Tai Snaith

Cover Image is    ‘The Cruel Sea’ by Tai Snaith

Doors slide silently throughout Mary-Rose MacColl’s ‘The Water of Life’ revealing snapshots of lives affected by a pedestrian and a bus and a wrong-place-wrong-time moment.  One of the key players likes “the routes that start ordinary and end up somewhere unexpected by going a strange way” (15), metaphorically broadcasting the intentions of the author, perhaps:  certainly sending a signal to the reader.  MacColl gives us an on-the-ground view of a Brisbane she is obviously familiar with. The 385 bus that “starts in the city, goes over to South Brisbane as if it’s tricking…” (15), balloons over the waking city, “Remax and Sirromet and another one she can’t read” (16) and “smokestacks puffing away over the four exes on Milton Brewery” (25).  It’s an entertaining thought-provoking time-warp tale.

Lyndel Caffrey unwraps the love story of Bird and Glad in ‘Glad’ with a constant eye on the detail of a 1920s Melbourne: of gold dust in the printery; of Kiwi shoe polish and the Sherwood Knitting and Spinning  Mills; of the Bulletin and Henry Lawson and trips to Brighton Beach; the boot lasts and beeswax of a cobbler’s corner.  Caffrey captures perfectly the depth and ease and awkwardness, joy and sadness of youthful innocent love.

Here’s Glad and Bird falling in love at Brighton Beach:

My Glad, that’s who you are.
He squashed her sticky salty hands together in his and found her salty lips against his mouth and held on until her head pulled back and she took a great breath of cold air.
If anyone asks you your name, you tell them you’re Bird’s Glad, that’s who you are, he said.
(53)

And here Bird and his sister race to the Sherwood Mills:

They rocketed through the back streets of Brunswick and Coburg, him light-headed as his feet turned the pedals, Fynn up on the handlebars, twisting her head back and filling him in. (47)

Katerina Cosgrove’s ‘Intimate Distance’ jumps from Efes to Athens and leaps forward to a 2017 Sydney and back again.  Over the distance of kilometres and years, intimacy unfolds in many ways, such as in its description of “the marine scent of semen growing cold on the sheets” (77) and the quiet softness of a dawn that “pricks the shutters with needles of light” (84).  The intimacy between the lovers Zoi and Mara is pierced by the intrusion of Zoi’s brother Dimitri.  There is the ultimate intimacy of pregnancy; the strength of the connection between a woman and her body, a child and its mother, the baby’s link to an unknown world.  And there’s a changed (and charged) intimacy between lovers when paternity hovers.  But where is the line between telling and holding back?  At what point does the telling revoke the intimacy?

His mouth locks onto my nipple, a drop of colostrum oozes into his body like light, the same light.  Thin blood, rose-coloured, fading or brightening into white.  Trickling out of brown nipples like rain. (137)

Still intimate as it is typed onto a page no doubt, but perhaps lost by the time it is read?

I floundered within the pages of ‘A Minor loss of Fidelity’ and was not able to find my place as a reader.  It was as though Christine Kearney wrote in a bubble and I couldn’t force my way in to unravel the nuances.  Did the author have something to say about motherhood?  Or was I missing something in the UN connection? Timor? Family? Politics? Poverty? The Law? It was never quite clear for me.

With apologies to my sisters of the pen, I’ve got to say that the most memorable pieces were written by the two men represented in the collection.

If I struggled to find a convincing voice in Christine Kearney’s story, no such issue arose with ‘River Street’.  Jim Hearn sets the scene and tone in the opening paragraph (“I pump my fist and work a sullen, pockmarked vein toward courage” (235)) and soon follows up with a solid, convincing voice that never wavers (“I’m not sure if innocence exists but if it does it belongs to a time before you realise that the world is just one long river of pus”(236)).

The horror of the life of a junkie is expanded by the apparent normalcy of securing a job in order to fund the vice.  Hearn’s narrator doesn’t ask us for pity, doesn’t need us to understand his morality.  I found a certain heroic streak in the way Jimmy handles his addiction; his intelligent understanding of his limits, his pragmatic approach to attending to his needs, his precise calculation of time-frames necessary to function as a human being.

Two weeks have passed since I read ‘River Street’ (I read it three times, trying to grasp how the writer made such a sympathetic character out of a foul-mouthed junkie) and Jimmy’s voice still haunts me.  I search for his likeness in restaurants (could that guy flambéing in the kitchen be sweating through an aching desire for drugs?), I look for him amongst the bustle of pedestrians (is that the walk of an addict looking for his next fix?).  When a stranger speaks pleasantly to me at the bus stop, could a voice be screaming inside him ‘I could be dead in half an hour’?  Might he be waging a silent war with his legs which seem to have a craving all of their own? “I picture smashing them into the side of a bus while riding a motorbike. The daydream is pure pleasure.” (276).

Hearn is just pipped at the post by Ed Wright for my favourite piece: ‘An End to Hope’. Its size (53 pages) and weight of subject matter (duty and suicide) are perfectly suited to the novella. It is executed within the form to perfection.  From the opening line, Wright urges you on with a sense of immediacy:

A moment’s hesitation was all it took. She stood there trembling on the tree.  Noose around her neck. Waiting for the final count that would take her to oblivion. (149)

The narrator – a duty-bound Japanese daughter – side-steps acceptable behaviour to befriend an enemy soldier and to eventually take him as her lover, in the shadow of her dead soldier sweetheart Yukio.

The intimacy shared between the lovers for whom language is not the only barrier is at once familiar and alien, all the more so by the denial of a name for the soldier.  Despite their intimacy, the girl’s secret soldier-lover remains – in her mind – ‘the enemy’: “I rested my head in the enemy’s lap and his stuff continued to trickle out of me…” (170).  He is always ‘the enemy’ in the deepest private part of his lover’s soul, even as she imagines him ageing: “His chiselled jaw would have grown more chins.  His firm belly would have gone soft.  The skin on his chest would have sagged.  His hair would be thick and grey.” (183)

This imagined ageing is beautifully realised and continues as the narrator describes her future self: “an obachan wobbling through the village with her back perpendicular to her legs as if time had turned the entire world into mountain.” (182)

This 38th Edition of Griffith Review is perfect for lovers of short fiction.  It’s also a great way to ‘taste-test’ these authors if you’ve not read their work before.  I’ll be checking out Ed Wright’s first full-length collection of poetry, When sky becomes the space inside your head (Puncher and Wattman) and I’m looking forward to reading Jim Hearn’s High Season published by Allen and Unwin in 2012.

BOOK DETAIL:
Schultz, Julianne, Ed. The Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project, Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing. Sth Brisbane/Melbourne, Summer 2012.
ISBN: 9-781921-922602

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